Saturday, June 5, 2010

Review: Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Title: Countdown
Author: Deborah Wiles
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication date: May 1, 2010
Hardcover: 400 pages
Reading level: ages 9-12
Genre: Documentary novel
Rating: 5 out of 5
Source: Big Honcho Media (thanks Chelsy!)

Synopsis: from inner cover flap
Franny Chapman just wants some peace. But that's hard to get when her best friend is feuding with her, her sister has disappeared, and her uncle is fighting an old war in his head. Her saintly younger brother is no help, and the cute boy across the street only complicates things. Worst of all, everyone is walking around just waiting for a bomb to fall.
It's 1962, and it seems that the whole country is living in fear. When President Kennedy goes on television to say that Russia is sending nuclear missiles to Cuba, it only gets worse. Franny doesn't know how to deal with what's going on in the world -- no more than she knows how to deal with what's going on with her family and friends. But somehow she's got to make it through.
My thoughts: 
In this documentary novel, Ms. Wiles uses her experiences as a young girl growing up in the 1960s to immerse readers in the fear and unease of the Cuban missile crisis through the life of 11-year-old Franny Chapman. Franny, who comes from a military family, lives near Andrews Air Force Base, close to Washington D.C. Franny and her classmates are used to air-raid drills, where they practice how to "duck and cover," but when the air-raid drill happens during recess, the panic not only of the children, but also of the adults quickly brings home the feeling of dread in a chaotic world. It's easy to see how the civil rights movement could gain so much momentum from young people in this time of unease.

What I like about Franny, the main character, is that she is so well developed and authentic. When the family sits down to listen to President Kennedy announce that Russian missiles are in Cuba and can strike Washington D.C. at any time, the 13 days in October 1962 are a huge concern for Franny. She continues to try and pen a letter to Chairman Khrushchev to show him that she is just like the children in Russia with the same feelings and fears, but she also must deal with the stress in her own family. Her 11-year-old self is old enough to try to comfort her younger brother, but not old enough to really know what's going on with her older sister or her parents. She is in that in-between stage where the adults dismiss her as being too young to know what their worries are, and too old to coddle. Her pain of feeling invisible and powerless, while still worried about 11-year-old stresses like friends, boys, homework and being embarrassed really creates an important character in Franny. I know that this is book one of a trilogy of the 1960s, so the book may take on different events, but I hope that somehow I can be in Franny's life a little longer. Despite her awkwardness, the end of this book shows that she will grow up to be a wonderful teen.

This is my first documentary novel, and until I read the author's acknowledgments at the end, I was labeling this as a multigenre novel, but documentary novel is the perfect label for this. Interspersed in Franny's story are snippets of songs and speeches, black-and-white photos and cartoons that not only bring the missile crisis to a new level, but also brings in other subplots like the civil rights movement and the propoganda of the day. The documentary nature of this book shows us the big picture of the 60's while the novel of the Chapman family focuses the microscope on one family trying to continue to live normally. This genre is a powerful way to bring this time period alive.

I think this novel can span the generations. I think Franny's story is appealing to tweens all by itself, but for me, it brings back my little girl  self who watched the Vietnam War on our black and white television each evening, and prayed for the safe return of all our fathers each night before I slept. It brings back my deep sadness as we watched the Challenger explode in the air, a room full of college students standing around one lounge tv, mourning for all the astronauts, but especially our own astronaut from Hawaii, Ellison Onizuka. This brings back the awful call in the morning from friends yelling for me to turn on CNN, and watching in horror and hopelessness as before our collective eyes we watched the second plane hit the towers and we stayed glued to the television as the towers fell again and again. I remember grabbing my two little boys, knowing that like everything else, life would be different, but as Americans, life would go on. It always has. I think that our memories are so embedded in the media, that this genre is a natural way for us to learn.


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